Why Classifying Books By Genre Needs to Die
If you go to agent or publisher websites, a common call is for writers to create something entirely fresh, something that doesn’t fit the usual molds. But even with those statements, I’m not at all convinced that the publishing world or general public has abandoned genre classifications as much as agencies and houses would have people believe.
The genre expectations
For starters, bookstores, websites, and libraries still label books based on traditional genres. That makes it easier for people to find what they are looking for. Querying tools and forms almost always require you to smoosh your book into a category. Agents and publishers also know how your book fits a target genre niche or compares to previously published works. They expect a summary of that in query letters and proposals. Most of them are clear on the site about which genres they do or do not work with.
Sporks belong in the drawer, too
I absolutely understand the need for a system of organization. But what if, for example, I have a mystery set in an earlier period, something a la Enola Holmes? Is that a mystery or a historical? What if I have a love story set in outer space? Is that science fiction or romance? Or what about books that challenge social conceptions or time? For example, the hit series “Bridgerton” on Netflix is based on Julia Quinn’s novels. But since it is an intentionally contemporary spin on the 1800s, is it too inaccurate to be a regency anymore?
Some books do fit very neatly into categories. But many do not. They are like sporks in a utensil drawer, simultaneously belonging and not belonging for their “oddity”. And as a writer, I see the current mode of labeling as being truly problematic. If my book does bend genres, it can be very difficult to present it according to the tools and expectations agents, publishers, and bookstores all have. It even can be hard to determine whether certain agents or houses would want to accept a query. That then can create additional work for authors who submit a preliminary inquiry before formally introducing the manuscript.
Another issue is that categorization can indirectly promote a quantity-over-quality mindset. It can become all about cranking out as many manuscripts that fit the standard for a buck as possible. And although there’s nothing wrong with someone making money from their writing, this approach can lead the writer to eventually get bored and disillusioned with the craft. It also feeds into the mistaken ideas that writing is so easy as to place it on an assembly line model (which leads to disrespect for the profession), and that readers aren’t intelligent enough to desire or understand anything else.
The message that’s sent versus the message writers need to hear
But perhaps even more concerning than presentation, quantity, or organization is the conflicting message of creativity and conformity. Writers who are continually forced to slap labels on their work for the sake of the label might mentally limit themselves regarding what their books can be. They might start to think of themselves as this or that type of writer, when in fact a good writer isn’t a “type” of anything–they can write whatever they da-n well please.
A potential genre alternative
We perhaps could solve the issue simply by creating tools that allow writers and others to select an “Uncategorized” or “Genre-Bending” classification. Explaining the mashup with references rather than a label, such as X Book + Y Book, could work in queries, store placement, and promotional materials. But such a shift requires people to let go of the knee-jerk desire to mentally classify to a high degree. The freedom we could gain, however, could be truly transformative in terms of what ends up on the page.